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Friday, January 23, 2004

A Remarkably Astute and Readable Account of Life in Saudi Arabia: A New Yorker Article

The article in question, Kingdom of Silence, appeared in The New Yorker on January 4th and is now available online at the journalist's own website: Lawrence Wright.

The kingdom? Saudi Arabia, 20 million in number, a country governed by 4000 royals . . . especially an inner mobster-gang now falling out in a frazzle of backbiting ways, a few dozen privileged silk-stocking types at most, to see who will replace the ailing king while killing off the less fortunate rivals. A bomb here, a bomb there: then blame it on the terrorists, who, come to think of it, are active there anyway. So much for buying off the suicidal Ker-boomers with protection moola. To prepare the article, Wright spent several months last year in the kingdom as a journalistic consultant for a Saudi newspaper, itself something unique . . . particularly in what is one of the most secretive, rabidly censored societies in the world, full of pervasive secret-police and paranoid Wahhabi extremists, including the dreaded Vice-and-Virtue-Promoting police-thugs, many of them former criminals, out to flog women and heretics while living on lavish corruption.

Some Introductory Background:

An ultra-fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni mainstream Islam, Wahhabism --- for those of you who know little or nothing about it --- harks back to the 18th century and became the official state-religion when the Saudi state was created arbitrarily by the British after WWI. It is full of hostility to the modern world; treats women essentially as the property of men; is full of Jew-hating propaganda; and persecutes other Islamic sects, especially Shiites. Antagonistic to an open society, to the West, and to democratic conceptions of religious tolerance, secularism, and individual rights, it has been used by the Mafioso-clique running Saudi Arabia --- which has squandered trillions of dollars worth of oil-revenue on their luxurious life-styles, leaving the country with a per capita income one-third of its 1980 level and an unemployment rate among men of 25-30% --- as a way of trying to endow its 4000 royal members with an aura of religious legitimacy.

In the process, they have been exporting their hate-filled brand of Islam all around the world, including the US . . . especially in rivalry with the extremist versions of Shiite Islam that the clerical-fascist Iranian government began pushing everywhere after 1979 with their own oil revenue. [On Wahhabi Islam and the Saudi double-dealing role in the war on terrorism, including financial support to Al Qaeda, see the Frontpage symposium last summer. See too the views of a convert to moderate Sufi Islam by Stephen Schwartz. He knows Wahhabi Islam well and doesn't mince his words, calling the combination of Saudi autocracy, oil-wealth, racism, and the Wahhabi death cult "naked Islamofascism" at its worst. ]

And The Magazine

Then there's the The New Yorker where Wright's article appeared . . . one of the two great weeklies in the English-speaking world: The Economist of London, a far different sort of magazine --- strictly political, economic, and business analysis of the highest quality, plus a brief book-and-art section at the end --- is the other. Both have been around for decades or longer.

The New Yorker ranges far more ambitiously. It specializes in investigative journalism of a lengthy sort --- like Lawrence Wright's --- often published in a multi-week series, also shorter reportage of a more instant sort, unusually good quality short-stories and poems (some of the best around), and very vigorously written reviews of music, art, books, cinema, and sports. Some of the greatest novelists and critics in the English-speaking world have appeared there on a regular basis. It also has a retinue of uncommonly talented cartoonists and graphics specialists, and I myself am a proud owner of a large volume of its reproduced cover-artistry.

To put it bluntly, careful investigative journalism of this sort hardly exists outside the English-speaking world. And nothing exists anywhere in Europe, even Britain, to match The New Yorker's verve, range, and talent.


No, as I told my students in political science 129 a few moments ago, this stunning, insight-crammed article by Lawrence Wright, isn't required for the course: the US in the War on Terrorism. Still, if they or you are for questing after keen, factual insights into Arab life --- especially in the oil-rich gangster state of Saudi Arabia, with its pervasive secret-police and muttawa (the dreaded vice police that hunt down wayward women --- wayward meaning even wrong dress ---- and flog them publicly or in dungeons) --- then Kingdom of Silence by Lawrence Wright is just what you need. And should read.

The article brings out a lot of things that are hard for foreigners ever to make sense of, especially in the closed secret-police ruled world of the 20 million Saudis:

the pervasive sense of depression and humiliation about their backwardness,
their fear of the despots who run their lives,
the extraordinary lack of access to female company on the part of single men way into their 30s,
the head-spinning seculsion and stigmatizing of women that animate Wahhabi extremist Islam in that country,
their envy and fears of the US,
and the paranoid conspiratorial outlook on the world --- especially the US, Israel, and Jews, all seen as in some furtive cabal to destroy Islam.

Wright also details the lives of a handful of his young fellow Saudi journalists, generally likeable men who would prefer to be real journalists, not just tools of the censors and untouchable corrupt leaders. When he was in Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2003, he tried to get more information about the notorious fire-incident at a girl's school the year before: local residents tried to rush in, apparently, to help the girls being engulfed by fire, but were turned away by the Vice-Police because the girls weren't wearing their headdress and veils. Later on, to the extent he can talk to others freely, he probes the views of the Saudis about the US and the outside world.


Saudi Complexity Too

Something else about Saudi life that comes through is that there are modern men in the country --- and women too --- who'd like sweeping change, political and economic and above all cultural freedom, but, alas, have no idea how it could ever occur. Another thing is closely related: how Saudis are not only fearful of us and inclined to explain the world to themselves and others in preposterous conspiratorial manner, but how many have been conditioned as well to hate and resent us. The pervasive sense of humiliation and paranoid-infested desires for revenge --- which explain the constant adulation of crackpot Arab dictators who defy the West (Nasser, Saddam, Assad of Syria) or terrorists like bin Laden --- also come through clearly without any didactic harping on Wright's part.



On a different plane, those of you who are contemplating a journalistic career might reflect on the strikingly effective writing in the article: the unforced portraits of Wright's fellow journalists, the detail worthy of a novelist about their characters (with no forced purple-prose), the concern for avoiding abstract generalizations in favor of factual matters that nonetheless allow you to infer what life is generally like in the Saudi world, and above all what it says about the challenges for the US in seeking to promote transformation of 22 Arab countries, 300 million strong, half of them under 15, with 500 million the likely figure in a generation.

All save Iraq now are governed by corrupt, nepotistic ruling cliques: the President-for-Life or the King or Sheik in power until he dies and a son takes over or he's killed in a coup and another clique emerges. Secret police are the ultimate prop of these regimes. They differ essentially only in two ways: the magnitude of their political brutality, and the degree of openness to the West. Both are related; both are better in Jordan and Tunisia and Morocco and even Algeria now that the extraordinarily cruel civil war with fundamentalists has wound down than they are elsewhere. The very tiny Gulf states of Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAR are also more open these days too. Egypt once had a vibrant cosmopolitan culture centered in Cairo, the site also of one of the two best universities in the Arab World, The American University. So did Lebanon, an impressive small country that once had a very energetic intellectual life, until it tore itself apart in one of the most horrendous civil wars in recent times. Even now, despite the end of the slaughter, dozens of armed militias operate freely, and harsh Syrian occupation persists, with the Syrians supporting Hezbollah in the south.

Elsewhere? The Sudan, where an Arab military clique has pursued a genocidal war against tropical Africans in the south for decades, is winding down its violence, not least under American pressure. Mauritania, like the Sudan, openly practices slavery, documented yearly by the anti-Slavery Society affiliated with the UN. In Yemen, thanks to American pressure and American special forces, the government --- however inefficient and corrupt --- is at least cracking down on the terrorist networks there. Somalia remains a warlord-divided state. Chad is a mess, bankrupt and recently engulfed in one more wave of ethnic violence, with the Arab-speaking groups in the North imposing another dictatorial regime.


Modernity vs. Fundamentalist Regression, Despotism, and Other Legacies

None of the 22 Arab states has shown any ability to industrialize effectively, to overcome the worst illiteracy in the world --- worse than even in much poorer tropical Africa --- to curb nepotism and corruption, to transcend the winner-take-all form of politics, or to provide equality for women. All these matters are set out and discussed at length in the unusually frank UN Arab Human Development Report 2002. See the good summary in The Economist, linked to at the buggy site:

At one time, the buggy prof had several talented Arab grad students. He even directed two successful doctoral dissertations by them, and served on the dissertation committees of four other Middle East students. One has disappeared: you have to fear for the worse. The others, fortunately, escaped or took refuge in this country, and most have had flourishing academic careers, a credit to our country. Another grad student of mine, an Iranian --- at a time when there were two other Iranians in a two-quarter seminar on global political economy --- turned out to be a secret-police colonel for the clerical-fascist regime. Believe it or not, when another student in that seminar returned briefly to visit family in Iran, he was arrested by the secret police, kept in confinement for three years, tortured systematically for most of those years . . . and the man who carried out the initial interrogation and torture was the other former student, the secret-police officer. The tortured student was eventually able to escape, thanks to copious bribes by his family. A portly guy when I had known him before his grisly ordeal, he was about 5-foot, 7-inches, and weighed around 190 pounds in those days. When I first saw him about six months after his return to this country, he was a haggard 95 pounder who walked with difficulty.

Will there be a flourishing, open intellectual life again in the Arab world?

At one time there was in Egypt and Lebanon, just a few decades ago. From the 8th until the late 12th century, it was more open and vigorously creative than European culture . . . only to lapse into what fundamentalists now regard, nostalgically, as some sort of purified Islam. The outcome? Intellectual regression and self-isolation. As the UN Arab Human Development Report 2002 notes --- a staggering statistic --- Spain with its 40 million people translates more books each year than the 300 million Arabs have done over the last 1000 years.

Replies: 1 Comment

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Posted by Online casinos @ 01/30/2004 11:19 AM PST